Embracing Failure… Becoming The First Penguin

You’re Going to Fail

 

You are going to fail. It’s that simple. You are going to fail. Now it might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but at some point down the line you’re going to mess up.  And it’s not going to be some little screw up either. It’s going be really bad. For some of you, you’re going to see it coming. For others you’re going to get blindsided. Some of you, bless your hearts, are going to do everything right and then guess what, you’re still going to fail. Some of you probably all ready failed. Have you gotten the hint yet? Everyone fails in some form or way in their lives, be it professional or personal. But one thing is for certain, there’s no getting around it. So you might as well embrace it, because failing isn’t as bad as you think.

 

Why We Fear Failure

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A student fearing failure is a student handicapped by outdated educational ideals.

 

Now as you read that first paragraph your stomach probably turned a little bit and some thoughts started flowing through your head about things that could fail in your life right now. Maybe is that deal waiting to close? Maybe it’s that first date?  We as a society fear failure. We are terrified of it. Through our educational development we’ve been conditioned to fear being wrong. Failure is stigmatized in our educational systems. It is the reason why when a teacher asks a question in a kindergarten class all the hands go up and when a professor asks a question in a college course only a handful of hands go up. At some point along the way we as learners begin to think that being wrong is the worst possible outcome, and we run our business like this too.

 

Think about it this way. All of us spent the first 18-22 years of our lives being told that failing is wrong. The truth is that academic life is geared around your success. In most cases if you get a C in a course that is the pretty bad, when in reality its average. Failure in the real world is much different because anything goes and you need to take chances to succeed. If you consistently got a 4/10 on your college quizzes you would probably get an F in that class. However, if you were a professional baseball player and 4/10 at bats you got a hit you would be going to the All-Star Game.

 

 

The Other Side of Failure

 

Hypothetically failure is horrible, but in retrospect failure is often essential to success.  So why is failure essential to success? Well there are two main reasons that I can think of: The first is because only through our mistakes and failures we can truly begin to learn and develop. The other reason is that failing over time begins to make us resilient to aversive conditions.

 

Michael Jordan said it best. He said, “I can accept failure. What I can’t accept is not trying.” That is what I am getting at. If you try, if you really give it all you got you’re going to get something out of the process of your attempt. So the end result is that you goofed or things didn’t go according to plan. The odds are that if you truly gave your best effort you’re going to walk away knowing something that you didn’t before.  That is what matters most.  Ask any great champion or stand out in their field and they will tell you the same thing. Failure leads to success.

 

What Juggling Can Teach Us about Failure

 

In my senior year of college I heard Curtis Zimmerman give a speech. Curtis is a tall large framed man who slicked his brown hair back and wears thin wire framed glasses. Curtis is a world renowned entertainer and circus performer. He can swallow swords, eat fire and juggle like it’s nobody’s business. The culmination of his speech is to have a person come on stage who can’t juggle and learn how to juggle in front of the entire audience, and best of all he guarantees they will learn to juggle, and the person, nervous as they always are gets it every time. Curtis then puts on a juggling show where he’s juggling three, four, and five balls in different patterns and ways that people have never even seen before and he’s getting really into it he says, “Do you know why I am able to do this so well?… Because I’m not afraid to do this.” And he lets all of the balls fall on the floor. “The reason I can juggle so well is because I have dropped the balls more than any other person in this room. My past failures are the reason for my current success.”

 

The First Penguin

 

The late Randy Pausch PhD, author of The Last Lecture and former professor at Carnegie Melon, gave out a First Penguin award each year when he was teaching to the biggest failure in trying something big and new because he thought this should be celebrated. The idea came to him because First Penguins are the ones that risk their lives to jump into water first even though it might be filled wih predators.

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Behold the glorious First Penguin. This penguin is the first to dive into the water. That water might be filled with predators or that penguin might get first dibbs on all the tasty fish in the ocean. Take the risk.

 

My best advice is if you’re not the first penguin find someone who will make you the first penguin, find someone who will push you into the frigid waters below. When I first started my job right out of college I was fortunate enough to have a boss who embraced failure and taking chances. Believe it or not I was scared to make phone calls to clients because I was scared I might mess up and fumble my words on the phone and sounds dumb. So my boss sat at my desk with me and made me make some calls. I was so nervous I messed up a lot at first, but then I realized that this wasn’t so bad at all. After while my initial fear wore off and I became quite good at the phones. Now I start off every phone block session with a random call to a business in a phone book just to get my goof up out of the way. I used to be that little penguin on the edge of the iceberg looking into the water, scared to jump. Today I’m still that little penguin, but now I’m doing back flips into the water and give it my best effort every time I jump.

 

Be that first penguin. Celebrate your attempt even if it ends up in failure, because odds are you’ve learned something important along the way. Good luck.

 

Some quotes and media on failing that you might like.

 

“Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

                                                            – Batman’s Dad

 

“Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.”

– Carl Jung, Psychologist

 

“My reputation grows with every failure.”

                                                            – George Bernard Shaw

 

“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”

                                                            – John Dewey

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Embracing Failure… Becoming The First Penguin

  1. I agree Kevin. The fear of failure has inhibited so many talented people I knew from accomplishing anything in their lives. I also think that this fear later turns into apathy towards most everything in life. Seems to me that the natural coping mechanism most people have towards something they are afraid of trying is just to ignore it out of their lives. This works up to a point, but if one person continues to ignore anything, soon his or her life will be pretty darn empty.

    FYI – Bruce Wayne’s dad is Thomas Wayne.

  2. I agree with Robine. If you don’t allow yourself the opportunity to fail you turn into lemming. If you do put yourself in a situation where you can fail, you are a penguin. I like penguins better than lemmings.

  3. When I was 17 years old, I entered a compeititon with the American Legion in which 1400 kids got together and did a mock-government. From that compeition, only 2 students would make it to the next round. 2 big lessons for me came from that.

    First, they sat us down and gave us a mini-classroom instruction about failure. They instructed us that since the “game” was built around elections and we were all top scoring history students, this would be the instance where some of us ever failed – yet alone publicly. I had never really thought about it at the time but it struck me as profound. I’ve taken an entrepreneurial route with my life and I’m glad I learned that lesson when I did.

    The second thing they told us was that the “failure” of the other 1398 kids would make victory for the 2 winning kids possible. “You can’t be the best unless you’re better than someone else.”

    As one of the 2 winners of that compeititon, I will never forget those words. My risk to fail made the victory savory, but the others’ risk to fail made my opportunity possible.

  4. I can’t believe you still remember that speech from Curtis. Well, I do too. In fact, I use his juggling motto all the time: “If you can throw and catch three balls one time, you can juggle”. Well, a few years later, I can juggle with no problem. I’m doing small tricks here and there, and I’ve even moved up to juggling four balls.

    I’ve come across some interesting notions recently. The first is practice really does make perfect. I’m slightly astounded by how it actually works. The second is that I succeed more when I’m less tense – which I gather is related to the issue of fear. Trying hard to accomplish something does not increase the chances for success, so why get the panties in a bunch? Lay them out to dry in the hot sun, then you can wear them anytime you want.

  5. Love the topic. So much so, I have been blogging on it for several years now. Posts on the areas noted above and lots more for those interested in exploring the subject more.

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